Applause for those who kept looking

Published Jun 30, 2018 at 4:00pm

1,597 Americans are still unaccounted for from Vietnam, while more than 82,000 U.S. troops are considered unaccounted for from wars dating back to World War II.

For more than a half-century, the family of U.S. Air Force Col. Peter Stewart could only speculate what happened to him over in Vietnam.

A native of Scotland who lived in Winter Haven, Fla., Stewart was a fighter pilot who flew dozens of combat missions during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. According to the Defense Department, Stewart’s last mission occurred on a fateful spring day 52 years ago when his F-4 Phantom erupted in a ball of fire while engaging enemy trucks. The military could not conduct any search or recovery operations in the immediate wake of the incident because conditions on the ground were too risky. Thus, the Pentagon initially declared Stewart missing in action, and a few years later updated that to killed in action.

It appeared he was lost forever to his widow, Marnie, and the couple’s six children. “It’s a terrible feeling, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” Marnie Stewart, who met her husband in 1944 when he was stationed at the Bartow Air Base, told the Alabama NewsCenter last month. “We always hoped that we would hear something.”

The family finally received that long-awaited word this past spring, when the Air Force notified the Stewarts that Col. Stewart would be coming home after all.

The Defense Department says that in 2014 a joint U.S.-Vietnamese search team found an F-4 crash site in the Dien Bien Province. Further investigation and subsequent testing revealed last June that some remains belonged to Col. Martin Scott of Oklahoma. But the team kept digging and uncovered more. Based on dental records and a St. Christopher medal recovered at the scene, the military eventually identified them as Col. Stewart. His remains were returned to Winter Haven earlier this month, and Stewart was given a funeral with full military honors last week.

Despite the decades-long wait to put their loved one to rest, and their minds at ease, Marnie Stewart, now 94, and her children are among the lucky ones.

Stewart is among 1,049 Americans located and recovered from Vietnam during those hunts. That leaves 1,597 Americans still unaccounted for from Vietnam.

We appreciate and applaud the diligence of American officials and the cooperation of governments in Vietnam and elsewhere, some that were once our enemies on the battlefield, in helping U.S. families like the Stewarts find closure. Their work truly gives meaning to the phrase coined by legendary American Lt. Gen. Hal Moore: “Leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together.”